Saturday, December 24, 2022

Red Letter Poem #141

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner






Red Letter Poem #141






I’ll tell you mine if you’ll tell me yours.  It’s the unspoken covenant within all literature, extending way back to the time when our thoughts had not yet been turned into written signs.  It’s a belief that the telling of stories cannot help but incite in those that hear them a desire to respond, to identify their own narrative threads and follow where they lead.  This is true even if the listener – at least for now – keeps their own tales private.  There is a faith that the telling is a communal impulse, and we are somehow bound together by what we share.  I can’t help but imagine a time when humans huddled together around a fire in the darkest of nights needing to calm the heart before sleep, needing to remind themselves (as we do now) that the darkness would eventually yield (hadn’t it always before?), and the sun would carry us back to morning.  In last week’s Red Letter, Jack Stewart’s poem had us gazing into the winter sky and wondering what moved beyond that starlight – or, more to the point, how the stories we tell ourselves shape what we perceive in this present moment.  Prompted by his little narrative, I’ll tell you mine.


I found myself thinking back to the last years of my mother’s life when, every few months, I’d fly down to South Florida to spend a several days with her.  The visits were largely uneventful: we’d make simple meals together or, for a treat, buy hot pastrami sandwiches and matzoh ball soup from the local deli, so we could hunker down at her kitchen table playing round after round of gin rummy.  But the food, the games were largely an excuse for us to sit close and talk: telling stories that dredged up old memories; recalling faces that were distant or had been lost to us; letting laughter heal the ache, confusion, and regret.  Though only rarely did we speak of it directly, this was our way of conducting a long goodbye, of making sure we’d settled our hearts while we were together, preparing for the days apart.  On one occasion, and to break up the regularity, I suggested I drive her to Coconut Creek to visit Butterfly World, the largest butterfly park on the planet.  Though not the sort of thing she might normally have sought out, she agreed – and ended up loving the afternoon, sharing an experience that led to a much-loved photograph, a skein of memories we’d rehash over the card games, and eventually today’s poem.


Here, at the time of mid-winter celebrations – where almost every religious tradition has its own story to tell – we can share this starlit moment together (even if virtually), and wonder about all that lies beyond our comprehension.  The story you and your family tell may be about unassailable hope embodied in the birth of a child; or about the endurance of light beyond all rational expectation; about the planet itself sheathed in the cold and dark that, nonetheless, contains new seeds waiting to erupt.  Or it may be about an old woman in a butterfly garden, lifted momentarily by the unimaginable beauty of those tiny creatures whose survival depends upon a transformation that can only be called miraculous.  Every narrative we share illuminates a small space between the listeners as – eyes finding other eyes – we recognize once again with whom we are sharing this hour.


So: I’ve told you my story, now you tell me yours.  Or, better yet, put down the phone or switch off the screen, and tell that person across the dining room table or seated beside you on the couch: about that time you actually. . .how then, out of the blue. . .and you won’t believe what happened next. . ..  I can’t tell you how often those gin rummy games come to mind; or how many questions I’d now like to ask, had I the chance; or which family stories, dulled (or so I thought) by the re-telling, I’d give anything to hear her voice share one more time.  The constellation of all those red-letter days and evenings – familial or cosmic, simple or profound – by which we steer our lives: savor them now, and then pass them on.  




My Mother, in the Butterfly Garden



The white morphos roiling about her head

were not halos.  The nervous flurry

of fritillaries, lacewings – not seraphim, not stars.

Even if Divinity had not been, all her life,

a wordless thing, she would never have taken this

for scripture scribbled across the humid air.  

Still, mother ooh!-ed and ah!-ed as each one

caught her eye, giddy as the schoolchildren

walking past us – but then suddenly solemn

as one black-and-scarlet beauty lighted

on her withered arm.  And later when she

pried herself from her wheelchair and stood

wavering in the afternoon sun so she could

bring her face close to the passion vines (this one,

a spray of spiky blue novas – and this,

a chorus of yellow mouths rising on the trellis),

she smiled and spoke a single word: Wonderful! 

It was not meant as benediction but

became that just the same, the syllables

blossoming in the air between us.  Tired again,

she had me wheel her to the shade. 

For nearly an hour we sat together in this

glassed-in world and let beauty do its work.

So, there it is – the little that’s left to us:

flower, wing, garden, mother, son – 

a brief outing at the close of summer.

If not God, then at least the will to desire Him.

If not eternity, then this bloom-scented

breathing in, and breathing out.

All we possess –                                                                 

all that’s been taken from us –

all that, in the end, we willingly

let slip from our grasp:  Wonderful! 








The Red Letters 3.0


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